Teaching core standards: Is it really new?

A hundred New York City schools are trying new teaching ideas based on Common Core Standards, reports the New York Times. It’s one of those stories in which the new, improved ideas seem very familiar.

Until this year, Ena Baxter, an English teacher at Hillcrest High School in Queens, would often have her 10th graders compose papers by summarizing a single piece of reading material.

Last month, for a paper on the influence of media on teenagers, she had them read a survey on the effects of cellphones and computers on young people’s lives, a newspaper column on the role of social media in the Tunisian uprising and a 4,200-word magazine article titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Reading more than one source? Golly!

A math teacher, José Rios, used to draw bell-shaped curves on the board to show normal distribution. This year, “he stretched the lesson by a day and had students work in groups to try to draw the same type of graphic using the heights of the 15 boys in the class.”

“Eventually, they figured out they couldn’t because the sample was too small,” Mr. Rios said. “They learned that the size of the sample matters, and I didn’t have to tell them.”

My daughter’s kindergarten class did something similar 25 years ago, graphing the likelihood of kids wearing various categories of Halloween costumes. I think my fifth-grade class graphed students’ heights nearly 50 years ago.

Forty-two states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands have signed on to the new standards, which will go into effect in 2014.

The new standards give specific goals that, by the end of the 12th grade, should prepare students for college work. Book reports will ask students to analyze, not summarize. Presentations will be graded partly on how persuasively students express their ideas. History papers will require reading from multiple sources; the goal is to get students to see how beliefs and biases can influence the way different people describe the same events.

Unless the rewrite of No Child Left Behind (aka Elementary and Secondary Education Act) makes significant changes, Common Core states will continue to assess their students’ progress in meeting standards.

At Hillcrest, a large and ethnically diverse school, one English teacher closed a unit on the American dream by asking each student to interview an immigrant and write a profile of the person. Pre-core, she’d assign a first-person essay.

Eleni Giannousis had her 10th-grade students watch the filmed stage performance of “Death of a Salesman,” starring Dustin Hoffman as Willy Loman, before reading the play.

The idea was to have students absorb information through a medium they use for entertainment, one way she was experimenting with her lesson plans to try to meet the new goals.

I read Julius Caesar in 10th-grade English. The teacher showed us the movie with James Mason as Brutus (I had a crush on him for years) and Marlon Brando as Mark Antony. After all, it’s a play.  We also got to see the movie of Pride and Prejudice, even though it isn’t a play. (I also had a crush on Laurence Olivier.)

The new standards call for students to read more “informational” texts: By eighth grade,  45 percent should be literary and 55 percent informational, and by 12th grade, the split should be 30/70. That is a change from the past.

At a training session last month, teams representing several schools in the pilot were asked to list lessons they had learned. Teachers from the Forward School of Creative Writing, a middle school in the Williamsbridge section of the Bronx, wrote on a piece of cardboard: “Visuals help students make meaning” and “Many students are reading far below grade level.”

Lessons learned? Or things we already knew.

The standards make no adjustments for poorly prepared students or those who aren’t fluent in English, said University of Illinois Professor Timothy Shanahan, who helped write the section on teaching reading through science instruction.

So what are teachers supposed to do?

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